The rise and fall of the cross border agent
In this week’s Czech History we look at the phenomenon of cross border agents, people employed by Western intelligence services to cross the frontier during the early days of the Czechoslovak communist regime to gather information, create networks and bring back chosen individuals. Some crossed the border many times, some were caught on the first attempt. For some the transient phenomenon helped launch them onto a new life, for others heroic, and not so heroic acts, ended with treachery, death and long terms of imprisonment.
For a few years from the early days of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia after February 1948 until the end of 1951, cross border agents were a real factor in the developing struggle between Western and Eastern blocks as they faced the possibility that growing antagonism would turn to open war.
Prokop Tomek is an historian at Prague’s Military History Institute who has co-authored a recent book about those agents who were captured by the security services and executed. He puts the the phenomenon into context.
“Western intelligence services prepared for a war situation. They had to provide information about the army and civil structure because Czechoslovakia and other countries in Eastern Europe were completely closed. There was censorship and travelling between the blocks was almost completely stopped. So all information, for example maps, newspapers, details about what was being bought and sold in Czechoslovakia, all simple things, were useful in view of a possible future war. That was the main purpose of these operations.”
For the Western intelligence services, above all the Americans and British and to a lesser extent the French, there was a ready reserve of possible agents to pick from. These were made up of the many Czechs and Slovaks who had begun to flee their homeland even before the Communists took power and the many more who followed once their worst fears had been confirmed. Conditions in the camps for refugees in a country still recovering from war and under foreign military control made it easy to sign up recruits with the promise of some pay or a smoother passage to the West. Prokop Tomek:
“These people were recruited in refugee camps in Germany. One reason for their activities was the possibility to get some advantage in travelling to the US, Australia or Canada. There were many people in the refugee camps and living conditions were quite poor.”
So material needs and the hopes of a fast track to a new future probably played a big part in getting the agents on board. For the most part they were men, although there were some women, in their twenties or thirties. They were usually in good physical shape and in some cases had already marked themselves by their ability to improvise to get out of a tight situation. Casting them as committed heroes or, as the Communists liked to, as slavish villains, was probably often wide of the mark.
Cigarette paper, cigarettes and semi-precious stones from Czechslovakia were some of the items that could be brought across the border and sold in Germany for a profit.
As he readily admits, Mr. Tomek’s account of the 42 cases where agents were caught and executed actually represents a somewhat slanted cross section of their numbers. The Communist regime often ordered the highest penalty for former border guards, security police or former members of the party with working class backgrounds because of the betrayal it felt for their later action. Other death penalty victims were proved to have passed sensitive information, tried to defend themselves with firearms or were just unlucky enough to be up for punishment when the regime wanted an exemplary sentence.
There was also another fundamental factor at the time: the border, or rather borders, while being made more secure by the communist regime were far from watertight. Crossing the often forested borders directly to Germany, Austria or even through East Germany to West Berlin was risky but was not a suicide mission especially for those who knew the layout of the land and had been across a few times. The Iron Curtain was at this stage neither iron nor a curtain, just a frequently patrolled, mostly forested, area.
At this stage the intelligence and counter intelligence efforts of both sides look pretty amateurish, like a bad plot from spy thriller author John Le Carré. The agents seem to have been given little schooling in the arts of spying or intelligence although they were expected to gather sensitive information, for example on arms production, and develop their own networks for later use. As far as weapons go, they were usually given a pistol and grenades – the minimum for their own self protection.
Often, those crossing the frontier took a train for most of the distance before getting off at the last stop before the frontier, or a bit earlier, for the final stretch on foot. One agent gave himself away when he opened fire at the train station only to find out that the person he suspected was from the security police was just an ordinary citizen. In another case, an agent only attracted suspicion on himself because the cover name he had been given was already on the police wanted list. He was lucky enough on this occasion to come up with a civilian camouflage in his cell and walk out of the secret police headquarters in Prague.
Even so, there were some agents who stood out for their daring and skill. One such was Štěpán Gavenda, a partisan in WWII who first clashed with the Czechoslovak security police in Apríl 1948 for helping Sudeten Germans cross the border illegally. He had by then formed a relationship with a Sudenten German woman in Czechoslovakia. His smuggling activities brought him to the attention of the US inteligence services who recruited him later in the same year.
“This was a man who had a real gift for these activities. He crossed the border 30 times and guided dozens of refugees to the West and provided a lot of useful information. He escaped from jail three times, once from the very secure jail of Leopoldov in Slovakia. This man was like Rambo, but it was a real story.”
He was eventually caught by Soviet and East German soldiers in late 1952 and handed over to the Czechoslovak authorities. By that time the frontier and its stepped up security had made it a much more dangerous place to be even for this tried and experienced operator. Gavenda was also caught once because a Czechoslovak security police informant infiltrated the agents’ network.